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Shop around so we can save our bacon.

Byline: By Bill Weekes

I was thinking last night about the place of bacon and eggs in our national diet.

What with the weekend coming on, I like a couple of light fried eggs and maybe a rasher or two of smoked bacon before taking the dog out to put a bit of a lining on the stomach, prior to our mid-morning orange juice at the Ship.

Now, bacon has been popular as an appetising food, for all classes, for many years. In fact, we've been eating bacon in one form or another for nigh on 800 years, which is a bit before I started my pre-Atkins diet of smoked rashers on Sunday!

What I didn't realise is that most of us don't particularly care for smoked gammon, or whatever, cuts. I go for the milder cured rasher of Wiltshire cured bacon.

This is mild, lean, without much fat, produced from long, lean pigs totally unlike the bacon pigs so beloved of Cobbett, that well-known 18th-Century countryman, who claimed that if a hog be more than a year old, he is better for it!

He said: "Make him fat, by all means. Lean bacon is the most wasteful a family can use. In short, lean bacon is uneatable, except by drunkards who want something to stimulate their sickly appetites." Well, what about this Wiltshire cured bacon, that appears to be the most popular?

Just because this bacon is known as Wiltshire cured, it doesn't mean it has been processed in Wiltshire.

The Wiltshire cure is not only common in Cumbria curing factories, but is the most popular method used in most Danish food plants.

This mild cure originated in Wiltshire some 200 years ago and, wherever our bacon comes from, about 80 out of every 100 rashers we eat are mildly cured the Wiltshire way.

The starting point for really good Wiltshire bacon is the right type of pig.

The pig must not be too fat. The ideal modern, bacon pig must be long and almost fat-free; small head, neat small shoulders and, most important, full, well-rounded hindquarters. With this conformation when the whole pig is killed, gutted, cut up and cured, the cheaper parts - head, feet, bones and offal - are transformed into pigs' cheek, brawn, sausage, black pudding and many other delicacies.

We now have the two traditional sides of embryonic bacon carefully bred to be well rounded and full at the rear end and light in weight at the fore end.

Thus, there is less of the cheaper cuts at the shoulder and more of the well-fleshed long middle and backside giving the more expensive, more popular and leaner bacon rasher and joints.

This pig when mature will weigh about 200lb on the hoof, fed on a strictly-controlled, low-fat diet and will be ready for slaughter at five to six months.

After slaughter, with head and offal removed, the two prospective Wiltshire sides will be ready for curing, each weighing some 55lb to 60lb. The sides are now graded following the careful overseeing of the animal's rearing and slaughter.

For example, the fat deposit along the back must be uniform, the length of the back is also measured, the carcase sides are weighed and further inspections are made by the appropriate health inspectors for any signs of blemish or disease.

Internal fat must also fall between statutory rules, all these checks ensure that only the highest-quality pig meat is deemed suitable for further processing on the rigorous road to our breakfast tables. Well, about this Wiltshire cure? After upgrading, the bacon sides are placed in a refrigerated room, below 40F. This usually takes place over- night before curing. Today the most likely method is by hanging the prospective bacon sides then passing them through a tunnel lined with vertical rows of injection needles that pressure-pump a brine solution into the slowly-moving sides at certain points in the carcase.

This ensures the curing solution spreads evenly through the potential side of future prime bacon.

The carcase sides are then rested at controlled temperatures before further jointing and pre-packing.

It's a far cry from the traditional methods of curing that produced really good bacon, a true monument to the bacon curer's art.

Sadly, the traditional means of bacon curing are hard to find. Traditionally, the sides of bacon were stacked in large oak wood tanks, these "green" sides were soaked in a secret brine solution which cut out all contact with the atmosphere. Timing was important.

This historical method was a natural process involving the soaking and working of the brine salts into and through the flesh.

Certain bacterial action also took place in the tanks which aided the curing and ripening of the bacon, something akin to the ripening of cheese or the hewing of beer and it was this natural ripening method that gave our traditional Wiltshire cured bacon its characteristic texture and flavour.

The brine solution used in this way was seldom, if ever, drained from the oak tanks.

The family firms engaged in bacon curing, would top up the liquid but in almost all cases it was never thrown away.

This enabled some bacon connoisseurs to claim that they could tell, blindfold, from which curer a particular rasher of bacon had originated.

The bacon sides would stay in the brine tanks about four days then were removed, allowed to cool, drain and matured in cool cellars for about a week. Then the sides were ready for sale as "green" bacon.

Alas, as far as I know, this natural method of bacon curing is no more. Any information would be most welcome.

And what about smoking? The outlook is not so dim.

Traditional smokers such as our North Country family smokers will still smoke a side of bacon over oak sawdust chips, giving the side that lovely golden-brown colour and distinct aroma and taste.

But much of our smoked bacon is treated with a so-called liquid smoke solution.

So next time you buy your British bacon, examine the labels, ask the grocer, because curing is still, or should be, part of a skilful process that attempts to ensure British Bacon is Best!
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:May 15, 2004
Words:1025
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